I always knew that I was significantly different from other people. But I could never understand why I was unable to connect emotionally to others. From my teen years I struggled to feel like I belong to any group that I am associated with.
I have always had a lot of social anxiety and find dealing with groups of people uncomfortable. I struggle to fit in even with people that I feel close to. Large groups of people make me very uncomfortable, in ways that most people can never understand.
Although I try to fit in, it is difficult for me to be myself in a group of people. I have long recognized that my brain functions differently than most other people's. I have rarely found others that understand me but when I do there is instant camaraderie.
In our society, there are complex social rules that govern all of our interactions. Most of these rules are about establishing power structures and status.
Conformity is highly valued in our social interaction. Behaving in a way that breaks the social norms of our society makes one an outcast. My entire lifetime I have struggled to understand the rules that others simply embrace intuitively. This makes each conversation extremely difficult for me.
While most of my life has been characterized by a feeling of alienation, I have also discovered a community of people that are quite similar to me. These relationships have provided me with great camaraderie and friendship. I used to think that this bond was related to common interests, but now I see it as much deeper than that.
There are people that are quite similar to me and yet very different than others. The common connection is deep in the brain and how we process sensory input and manage tasks and connections with others. These folks share many characteristics with me and I find myself instantly at home when I am with them.
When looking a any large group of people there will be a bell-shaped curve that represents specific characteristics. I find myself 2-3 standard deviations out on a cluster of thinking and behavioral patterns.
The traits cluster together to provide a mental profile that quite different from the norm. We can describe our group as being neuro-divergent, as opposed to neuro-typical.
Psychologists call my people autistic. This is used to highlight the weaknesses related to connecting with others. For years, I was unable to accept this label because of the associated stigma. I would not allow myself to be labeled as autistic because it was associated with poor mental health.
Now I see that good traits and bad traits (strength and weakness) are really two sides of the coin. What if the extraordinary mental focus abilities come at the cost of being able to know what another is thinking.
My entire adult life has been spent in the company of people very similar to me, yet outliers for the society as a whole. I'm pretty certain that 95% of software developers would be classified as being on the autistic spectrum.
The may indeed be a requirement for the software industry. People are drawn to software because they can succeed without being penalized by there natural ability to connect with others. Obviously there are exceptions, but most developers I know are far more comfortable with hours on the computer instead of hours spent with people. Maybe 1 of 20 are not that way.
I was first about 10 years old when I realized I was different from others. I assumed that it was the result of living in Europe as a child. But it was far more than that. My brain was wired to be different. It was not a behavioral issue but a biological one.
Over the years, I have worked hard to adopt behaviors that would allow me to connect with others. But I have always been fighting a biological imperative. I have learned how to get along with others and sometimes I listen well. But it takes a huge mental and emotional toll. People drain me and soon I need to disengage and seek solitude.
My son, Josiah, first helped me see the truth about how I think. He started talking about autism as if it was OK and I was quite surprised. He is much like me only more so. After studying this issue and pondering my life so far I came to the startling understanding that much of the discomfort that I have experienced as an adult is related to autism.
This understanding came 50 years too late.
For the first time I have language to describe my thinking patterns, social dynamics, and behavior tendencies. It has been difficult to admit the truth, but I am now owning it.
We have a fundamental assumption that conformity is good - unusual is bad. But I will thrive only by embracing my unique opportunity and challenges. I cannot live someone else's life; I must live my own. My brain functions differently than most people. This is both good and bad news. My people are defined by shared life experiences and similar patterns of thought, motivation, relationship dynamics, and behavior.
Some people have a high value for conformity and naturally fit in to whatever group they find themselves in. This has never been my experience. Conformity has always been an anti-value for me, rather than something to be sought. I value the conflict of ideas to forge a better world and often side with the rebels against authority when coerced.
If the crowd goes one way I am inclined to go the other. Swimming upstream is a fundamental part of my nature and identity. Of course this has a serious downside. Being independent means I often stand alone. But I now understand this to be a biological tendency rather than a simple behavioral problem.
One of great ironies for me is to find other people who think and feel the same way I do about conformity and independence. The people that would identify themselves as autistic typically have a life story about social conformity very similar to my own. I have always resonated with the idea of a different drummer.
People like me have both extra capability that most do not possess and disabilities that must be overcome. Psychologists would classify us as autistic, but labels are used often to devalue the members of a minority group. I identify with the thinking patterns, motivations, and social patterns that psychologists would call autistic.
But beyond the pathology there is a simple truth of being unique and non-typical. I do not see myself as pathological or mentally ill, although I do have a fair amount of dysfunction in my thinking and acting. I am not typical ... I am both better and worse that others. I am more "neuro-divergent" than defective.
I am on the autistic spectrum, so this means that I must learn how to limit my blind spots while pursuing my strengths. The wonderful thing for me is too discover that I am not alone. There are a lot of others who experience life in a very similar way. These are my people.
Meyers Briggs define a spectrum of Intuitive - Sensing (N vs S). I peg the scale on N. I am easily overwhelmed by sensory input. Being in a noisy restaurant with lots of people pushes my panic button. On the other hand I can spend hours in Mind-Meld with my computer.
Deep focus for long hours is no problem but conversation drains me of energy in a few minutes. Creative insights and breakthrough ideas come easily. I regularly start my day with a brainstorm of 30 ideas I wish to pursue.
Connect with other autistic people love the high energy exchange of ideas. I am prone to independent thinking and often rebel against the pressure to conform. I have little need for validation from those in authority but crave the approval of other creative types.
I am energized by the search for truth and deeper understanding. I often build relationships with others who are idea people and we can talk for hours about many topics. I find those that are not interested in ideas boring and judge them to be shallow.
I often have conflict with S-types because I live in a virtual world and they live in a physical world. My perfect day is about 10 hours of creative work and 1 hour of deep conversation.
For neuro-typical people, there is great joy in normal human interaction. I have learned over the years, that it is very difficult to understand what others are thinking. Other humans are opaque to me and I seldom know what they are feeling or why.
Most people have a natural empathy that allows them to walk into a room and know within seconds what everyone is feeling. My wife is a superb empath and is always aware.
I blunder into every conversation and am naturally blind to most social queues. I wait for my wife to give me the elbow when I say something inappropriate. When she's not with me I'm a bull in a china shop.
This causes a great deal of alienation with others. I have learned to keep my mouth shut most of the time. When I do disclose how I feel it often results in over-sharing and a deep sense of shame that I could not hold back.
This makes it very difficult to truly trust other and results in them not being able to trust me. I have a handful of deep friendships but little desire to invest in casual acquaintances.
I must be very careful in everything I say. It requires constant vigilance to avoid offending others and communicating things that damage rapport. Because I don't understand the constant negotiation of power and position and status I naturally don't value it. This places me in constant peril of saying something that I shouldn't.
Most people naturally edit their thoughts before they are shared. My brain does not have this natural process at work. For me it is a task requiring enormous intellectual effort to edit my thoughts so that they are acceptable to others. People often say that to get along you just need to be yourself. For me this is a recipe for disaster.
"Be yourself", is common advise given to create meaningful interactions between two people. This is the opposite of how I must interact with others. In my family of origin, it was considered honest to openly communicate each thought that popped into your head.
"Wow, you've put on a lot of weight recently" or "Your shirt is really ugly", were considered just stating the obvious truth. My wife needed to train me that this kind of communication was hurtful and out-of-bounds.
I'll never forget being at church and commenting on how ugly a new-born baby was. I was surprised to be rebuked because I assumed that the parents were aware that their baby was homelier than typical. I have no natural filter, so must work hard to consciously edit me communication.
Important conversations for me are impossible without an enormous amount of work. Without this I blunder in and make the situation far worse than avoiding it altogether. Any conversation involving potential conflict requires hours of careful planning.
After the encounter, there may be several more hours of post-game review and critique. This makes my engagement with others extremely draining. If it goes well then I feel good. When it goes bad it feels like a catastrophe.
If I take this difficult path to control the conversation, then the outcome is good about 80% of the time. When I do not put in the effort then 25% of the time I have a good outcome (leaving a 75% change of disaster).
There is no easy or natural way for me to relate with others. I have grown to accept this and recognize that I was born this way. Therefore, I am very frugal with how I invest in my relationships. Some people are very important to me and I interact with a great deal of care and conscious thought.
In order to make this work I must consciously avoid more casual relationships. I realize that I have a shallow capacity to relate and prioritize the few over the many. This means that I am always asking, "Can I build deep trust?" or "Will this person be a lifelong friend?". If not then they go into the acquaintance bucket and get little mindshare.
I know this sounds weird, but it is only way I can address my social disability. Spending too much energy on casual acquaintances leaves me depleted. That is when my disability turns to dysfunction.